A soluble solution for life-changing disease treatments.
For thousands of years scientists have been looking for a treatment for Hansen’s disease which used to be referred to as Leprosy, an infection caused by deadly slow-growing bacteria that affects the nerves, skin, and eyes. Until 1915 the closest any scientist came to a treatment was proving that oil from the chaulmoogra plant could kill the bacteria. However there was no suitable method to administer the oil to infected patients.
Enter Alice Ball.
"'[Her] method of transforming oils into a water soluble substance became known as the Ball method. This method created the first effective treatment for Hansen’s disease..."
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Alice's Early Interest in Chemistry
Alice was born in Seattle, Washington in 1892. She discovered her love for chemistry from her mother and grandfather who showed her how to chemically develop photographs. She helped out around the studio mixing fresh developers and preparing photographic plates.
Alice went on to study chemistry in college, obtaining her Bachelor’s degrees in Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Chemistry at the University of Washington. During this time, she discovered how to make an oil molecule "water soluble", meaning it could mix with water. She was able to do this by combining it with certain alcohols. This work was so influential she published it in an academic journal! It also put her on the path to her discovery of the life-saving cure for Hansen’s disease.
Mixing the Immiscible
Hearing of Ball’s work, Dr. Harry T. Hollmann, U.S. Public Health Officer for Hawai‘i and a lead on a project to develop a treatment for Hansen’s disease, recruited Ball to help him solve their problem with chaulmoogra oil. At age 23, Ball moved halfway across the Pacific to complete a Master’s at the University of Hawai'i.
At the same time, Alice was developing an effective treatment for Hansen's disease using the chaulmoogra oil. The problem with chaulmoogra oil is that oil and water do not mix. This is important because the human body contains a lot of water, and if a molecule cannot be mixed with water it cannot be easily absorbed by the body. When two liquids cannot mix they are called immiscible.
But why is it that oil and water are immiscible? This is because water is a polar molecule meaning that it has a positive charge at one end and a negative charge at the other end.
Ever heard of opposites attract? Water molecules stick together because the positive end of one water molecule is attracted to the negative end of another.
Meanwhile the structure of an oil molecule is non-polar. Its charge is evenly balanced rather than having one positive and one negative end.
This means oil molecules are more attracted to other oil molecules than to water, and water molecules are more attracted to each other than they are to oil. This means they will not mix together on their own.
A Soluble Treatment
So while chaulmoogra oil was shown to stop the bacteria causing the disease, scientists and doctors had no way to get the body to absorb the oil. Over the course of her Master’s degree program, Ball developed a method to solve this problem!
Alice mixed the oil with an alcohol to strip away parts of the oil molecules and leave just the components that are effective against the bacteria.
The remaining compound was water soluble (able to mix with water) and could be absorbed by the human body. This method of transforming oils into a water soluble substance became known as the Ball method. Her method created the first effective treatment for Hansen’s disease as it allowed the oil to be directly injected and exposed to the bacteria.
A Memorable Legacy
After this breakthrough, Alice Ball became the first woman to graduate with a master’s in science from the University of Hawaii and was invited to stay on at the University as a Chemistry Instructor. Shortly after she became head of the Chemistry department. She became the first woman and first black chemistry instructor at the college.
Sadly, Ball never saw her method in action as, shortly after developing it, she passed away at the age 24 due to an accident in the chemistry lab. The Ball method was used for the next 60 years to treat Hansen’s disease! It cured thousands of people and provided the basis for the development of cures for many other diseases.
Photos courtesy of University Archives, University of Hawaii at Manoa Libraries and University of Washington Tyee Yearbook
Written by Lindsey Oberhelman
Edited by Taylor Contreras, Madelyn Leembruggen
Illustrations and portrait by Sachi Weerasooriya
Primary source and additional reading:
UWSOP alumni legend Alice Ball, Class of 1914, solved leprosy therapy riddle from University of Washington School of Pharmacy
Explore the chemistry related to Alice Ball's research:
Investigate (60 minutes): Is It Water Soluble? Test ingredients from your own kitchen.
Deepen (30 minutes): Observe how atomic structure determines Molecule Polarity.